Certain global phenomena, like sushi, the mojito and the sitcom Golden Girls, might have arrived a bit late in Turkey, but as the world scrambles to go local, eat seasonally and connect with traditional culinary roots, Turkey is way ahead of the pack. Gram, chef Didem Şenol’s carefully curated locavore deli in Şişhane, feels perfectly in step with the stripped- down style that chefs from New York to New Zealand are favoring today.
One of Turkey’s best-known female chefs, Şenol is part of an ancient Eastern Mediterranean cooking guild that ferrets out the best of what’s around and lets the materials do the heavy lifting. The food reflects a connection with the land and the seasons that was never lost in Turkey, despite the country’s rapid modernization and urbanization. And while the menu at Gram is also undeniably contemporary, it’s nothing fancy.
That restraint is what we like so much about Şenol’s cooking at Lokanta Maya and what led us to the small, vaulted room that makes up the entire dining and cooking area at Gram. Though the end results are often recognizable in the Turkish culinary canon, the starting point of every dish is a raw material, not a recipe. This process is apparent in the cooking at Maya, and Şenol has made it even more accessible at Gram. Here, diners step up to the buffet and assemble their own combo lunch from the day’s specials, choosing either two or four dishes out of the eight to 10 available (which usually include salads, cold mezes, pastries and fish), for a quick lunch in view of the open kitchen. It almost feels like eating at an esnaf lokantası, or tradesmen’s restaurant – if an esnaf lokantası were headed by one of Istanbul’s top young chefs and the esnaf were composed of ladies who lunch.
On a recent visit, we joined the other diners around the communal table and ate a delicious, chunky take on “tuna fish” with palamut (bonito), coriander seeds and orange peel. The fresh mint in yogurt, so thick it had a peanut butter effect on the roof of the mouth, muffled our cries of delight. In a spinach salad, bright pomegranate seeds harmonized with a crumbled goat’s milk tulum cheese, which was funky from the goatskin it was aged in. One of our favorites, çerkez tavuğu, seemed too precious to be eaten with a fork; we savored it on the fresh sourdough served alongside our food.
In the venue’s front entrance area, homemade sweet and savory pastries are lovingly displayed on a long, white counter, perfect for breakfast on the go or a leisurely dessert after lunch. Gram also has a nice selection of Turkish wines and is open for private dinner events.
Şenol has earned bragging rights in this town: she is the author of an excellent cookbook, was named Best Chef of 2010 by Time Out Istanbul, and runs two bustling restaurants. Yet she is still a humble chef who credits the popularity of her cooking to the quality of the materials she uses. Apparently, there’s one global trend yet to reach Turkey – the chef’s oversized ego.